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Is 'The Crown' fact or fiction? For the British royal family, the answer matters

"It is just inaccurate, obviously totally unfair, but also quite dangerous, in fact, to the British constitution," said one historian of the Netflix show.
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LONDON — Drama on TV usually stays on the screen. That, however, has not been the case for the most recent season of Netflix's "The Crown."

The first three seasons of the popular series, a sweeping dramatization of the British royal family, largely passed without too much controversy. But the most recent fourth season, released last month, has caused an uproar among a growing list of historians and politicians, who urged Netflix to make it clear that the show is fiction, apparently concerned that it could damage the real-life royals.

"It is just inaccurate, obviously totally unfair, but also quite dangerous, in fact, to the British constitution," said historian Andrew Roberts, who wrote "The Royal House of Windsor," tracing the history of the queen's family.

The show does, indeed, blend history and fiction. The show's meticulously crafted outfits, hairstyles and accents often match reality, and it can be hard to follow where exactly its narrative strays from history.

With the House of Windsor facing new challenges, including the dramatic departure of Queen Elizabeth II's grandson Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, to the U.S., "The Crown" has helped remake the royal family's image for a new generation.

Image: Emma Corrin as Princess Diana and Josh O'Connor as Prince Charles in 'The Crown'
The fourth season delves into more recent history, depicting Prince Charles' doomed relationship with Diana, with the show's characters played by Emma Corrin and Josh O'Connor.Des Willie / Netflix

But that has consequences.

"The inaccuracies are dangerous, because people believe them," Roberts said.

The fourth season's depiction of Prince Charles' doomed relationship with Diana paints the royals in a more negative light, highlighting dysfunction rather than triumph.

And there are signs that the show's representation is influencing real-life perceptions of Charles, the heir to the throne, and his current wife, Camilla.

The couple's official Twitter account changed its settings last week to allow comments only from those it also follows after a deluge of negative comments on recent posts, including one calling Charles a "monster" and others sharing photos of Diana.

The danger that the show could change people's impressions of the royal family is especially pronounced when it comes to Camilla, Roberts said.

Her "hopes of becoming queen are seriously threatened by the fact that she has been portrayed as an evil, unfeeling woman. Which is completely different from the truth," he said. The title she will take when her husband assumes the throne has not yet been decided.

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Fifteen years after their marriage, the drama that once surrounded the couple's relationship has largely subsided, so it is easy to forget that in the 1990s, many blamed Camilla for the breakup of Charles' marriage to Diana, who famously referred to her as the "third person" in the failed relationship.

Camilla's image has been largely rehabilitated in recent years in Britain, where she is generally portrayed in the media and on the royals' social media feeds as genuine and down to earth.

Still, a YouGov poll released in October found that more than 80 percent of those surveyed in Britain view the queen positively. Only 44 percent view Camilla positively.

The show's influence in the popular imagination led Britain's culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, to tell The Mail on Sunday newspaper that he believes Netflix should make it clear that "The Crown" is not an accurate reflection of reality.

"It's a beautifully produced work of fiction, so as with other TV productions, Netflix should be very clear at the beginning it is just that. ... Without this, I fear a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact," Dowden said.

Netflix said it had no comment on the calls for fiction warnings.

A survey released Tuesday by YouGov found that 74 percent of respondents think programs or films that dramatize real-life events should show warning saying they may not accurately reflect what really happened.

Michael Forsyth, who sits in the House of Lords, agreed that Netflix should spell out in a voiceover before each episode that some of the events and the dialogue are made up.

"It's certainly very wounding and unpleasant for [Charles] to put up with this, and if people believe it, then it would be damaging," Forsyth said.

"He is presented as a completely self-obsessed, unpleasant person who is horrible to the Princess of Wales. ... I feel very sorry for him being subject to this."

The show's creator, Peter Morgan, has defended his approach to how the series captures the royal family.

"Often I'm having to connect the dots and make calculated guesses. Sometimes creative guesses," he told NBC News in 2017. "And all I can say is I'm doing so with the best intentions to look at the subject from all sides and to be a responsible biographer."

But comments by one of the show's stars added to the growing pressure this week with the release of an interview recorded before the furor erupted. Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the queen's sister, Princess Margaret, said it is the show's duty to make it clear that the series is fiction.

"It is dramatized. I do feel very strongly, because I think we have a moral responsibility to say hang on guys, this is not, it's not a drama doc. We're making a drama. So they are two different entities," Bonham Carter said on the latest episode of the show's official podcast, which was released Monday. The comments were recorded earlier this year.

The show is set to return to screens in the coming years with season five, bringing viewers a historic dramatization that is even closer to the modern day — although that season is not expected to be any closer to reality than the four previous ones. The actor Imelda Staunton, who appeared in the "Harry Potter" movies, is set to play the queen.